Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era

By Arthur Pierce Middleton; George Carrington Mason | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
Prizes and Privateers

ALTHOUGH possessed of no other navy than the royal warships assigned to the purely defensive task of convoying the tobacco fleet and protecting Chesapeake Bay, by means of private armed vessels Virginia and Maryland shared in the offensive against the French and Spanish on the high seas during the four Anglo-French wars from 1689 to 1763. These vessels, owned and operated by private capital, were officially commissioned by the colonial governors in their capacity as vice-admirals of their respective colonies to make war, capture, and destroy vessels belonging to the subjects of princes at war with Great Britain.

Private armed vessels, often called privateers (presumably a combination of "private" and "volunteer") or "letters of marque" (from their commissions) were issued commissions called "letters of marque and reprisal." Originally this commission authorized them to recover by means of depredations on enemy vessels a sum equal to the amount lost by or owed to the recipient by a subject or citizen of the enemy country. Later they were issued upon request to any vessel willing to prey upon enemy shipping.

Privateers played an important part in the wars of the eighteenth century; they augmented the number of warships of a nation without costing the treasury a penny. Later there was a distinction between a privateer and a letter of marque, the former being a private armed vessel whose main business was plunder, the latter primarily a trading vessel armed to resist attack and authorized to capture enemy vessels encountered en route. Privateers made "cruises," while letters of marque made "voyages." The similarity between privateering and piracy was recognized by King James I, who called the former "splendidum furtum."1

The nature of the privateer's activities, revolving as they did around plundering, was hardly distinguishable in practice from

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